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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) Runoff elections? Let's nip that idea in the bud

January 2, 2011

Governor-elect Lincoln Chafee, a onetime Republican who left the party and pronounced himself an Independent, must indulge himself with a quiet chuckle when he sees examples of how his very existence — not to mention his successful bid for the governor’s office — moves the members of his former party to sputtering madness and sends them climbing the walls with a screaming, snarling rage that approaches outright derangement. Those kinds of emotions are usually touched off only by the likes of Hitler, or perhaps Charlie Manson.
How such a quiet, modest and seemingly gentle person spurs such violent reactions of outrage and (there is no other word for it) hate beggars the imagination.
In this sense, Chafee is much like his former colleague and apparent pal, President Barack Obama. Nobody ever says, “Gee, I disagree with that fellow’s policies.” No, they call him a socialist or a fascist or an ultra-left-wing extremist who is going to lead the country (or, in Chafee’s case, the state) straight to hell in a handcar.
OK, you can not like what Obama has done so far. I don’t like a lot of what Obama has done so far. But Chafee hasn’t even put his hand on the Bible yet to be sworn in. That doesn’t happen until tomorrow. So he hasn’t done anything yet but announce a few appointments to his staff. Perhaps some don’t like the people he picked, but that is hardly enough to inspire such vitriol
If you don’t believe me that Chafee incites such passions, just listen to a half-hour of local talk radio sometime. The hosts are one thing. The five local hosts on the two major stations almost uniformly lean Republican, but they have been downright voices of reason compared to their callers when it comes to Chafee. The callers spew such undiluted bile whenever Chafee’s name comes up, I sometimes wonder about the man’s physical safety.
While the hosts, as I said, have been relatively subdued, several of them, now joined by two incoming freshman Republican legislators — Mike Chippendale of Foster/Glocester and Patricia Morgan of West Warwick — advocate amending the state’s constitution in response to Chafee’s election and to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
That nonsense should be nipped in the bud. Venting one’s spleen on the telephone to a radio station is free speech, however vicious and distasteful it can get. But to amend the constitution because you don’t like the guy who won an election is such a gross overreaction that it should frighten reasonable people.
Chafee’s detractors contend that Chafee snuck into office in a seven-man raced boosted by a group of people they despise even more than the governor-elect, if that is possible: public employee unions.
They harp on the fact that he won with 36 percent of the vote, claim that was the work of the unions and contend, without a shred of real evidence, that Chafee is going to be a stooge for the unions for the next four years.
So now they all of a sudden want run-off elections, so that if no candidate for any office wins at least 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters must compete in a second election to determine a winner.
Chippendale and Morgan plan to introduce a proposed constitutional amendment to that effect.
Would any of this be happening if Republican John Robitaille had won the election with 36 percent of the vote? Almost surely not.
In a press release announcing the proposed amendment, Chippendale said: “I’ve had a multitude of constituents — as well as people from outside of my district, really focusing on the fact that the governor’s race was a seven way race that was won with only 36 percent of the vote. That means 64% of the voting electorate is not being represented by that office.”
No, that is not what it means.
Is Chippendale suggesting that he intends to not represent the people in his district who didn’t vote for him? Of course not. Once somebody gets elected to any office from President of the United State to local dog catcher, it is his or her responsibility to represent all the people in that constituency.
Morgan went even further in the same release.
She implies that voters who cast a ballot for a candidate who doesn’t win are “disenfranchised.”
No, they are not. You get to vote, that is your franchise; it doesn’t guarantee that the person you vote for will win.
The candidate who gets the most votes wins and we accept that as the will of the people. That’s how elections work in this country and it has made our democratic republic the envy of the world.
Proponents of the runoff say the candidate who wins a race must have a “mandate” in order to be able to govern. Since when? If a candidate wins an election with 50.1 percent of the vote to an opponent’s 49.9 percent, is that a “mandate”? Really? Anyway, what is the point of fretting over a mandate when in many elections barely 50 percent of the registered voters bother to show up at the polls?
President George W. Bush seemed to be able to govern, so much so that he was re-elected to a second term. But not only did he not get a “mandate” of more than 50 percent of the vote in his first election (he got 47.9), he didn’t even get as many votes as they guy running against him. But when he, as commander-in-chief, ordered the military to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, they went in, as wrongheaded as the order might have been. He governed. He proposed tax rates that not only became law, but were upheld eight and nine years later, when a new guy was in the Oval Office.
Will any of the Republicans now claiming that Chafee is somehow less than legitimate because he didn’t command 50 percent of the vote step forward and say George W. was an illegitimate president? I don’t think so.
There was a guy once who ran in a four-way race for President of the United States. He pitched his candidacy to voters in the states in the northern half of the country and largely ignored the others. He won with 39.8 percent of the vote and became president. His name was Abraham Lincoln. Anyone have a problem with him? Like Bush, he was a Republican.
What is behind all this run-off election stuff, and the reason I am afraid it will gain traction and perhaps get passed, is that it will maintain the hegemony of the Republican and Democratic parties — the so-called “two-party system.” It is an attempt to further marginalize Independent candidates and so-called “third party” candidates.
I will give anybody $1,000 if they can show me the phrase “two-party system” in the U.S. Constitution or the R.I. Constitution. It isn’t there. It doesn’t exist. There is no such thing.
The Founding Fathers, to whom Republicans and conservatives like to pay lavish lip service, were scared to death of “factions,” their term for political parties.
But now the Democratic and Republican parties, given their dominance in our electoral politics over the years, want to solidify their duopoly and keep others out. Run-off elections are one way of accomplishing that.
How would run-off elections work in Rhode Island? Would the general election, the one where everybody is “allowed” to run, be held in September, when we currently hold our primaries? Turnout is notoriously low in those elections, with many voters waiting for the main event in November? Is November when we would have our runoff?
Or would we still hold general elections in November and wait for December or even January for the run-off? Who is going to turn out then, when it is either the holiday season or the teeth of winter in these parts? When would the winner take office, and how long would he or she have to assemble a team before having the responsibility to govern?
It is never a good idea to change the way elections are held because you don’t like the results of one certain race. But holding run-off elections is a particularly bad idea that should be smothered in its crib before it advances any further.

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